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Toyota champions futuristic wheelchair designs

Phoenix Instinct wheelchair concept

Toyota has unveiled the five finalists of its Mobility Unlimited Challenge who will share a $4 million prize to use technology to reinvent the wheelchair and help people with lower-limb paralysis.

The Toyota Mobility Foundation, in partnership with Nesta’s Challenge Prize Centre, made the announcement at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas.

The finalists include teams from the UK, Japan, Italy and the US, and the devices range from a hybrid exoskeleton on wheels to a powered wheelchair share scheme.

They will each receive a grant of $500,000 to further develop their concepts by attending workshops and collaborating with equipment users, while also receiving mentoring opportunities. The ultimate winner will be announced in Tokyo in 2020 and will receive $1 million.

There were a total of 80 entries from 28 countries and the final five were chosen by a panel of expert judges including two from the UK – TV presenter and disability advocate, Sophie Morgan, and Occupational Therapy Clinical Specialist at the National Spinal Injuries Centre, Ruth Peachment.

To ensure entries from organisations of all sizes, the Challenge also offered 10 teams seed funding in the form of $50,000 Discovery Award grants during the entry period. Of the 10 Discovery Award winners, four went on to be selected as finalists.

The five finalists in the three-year Mobility Unlimited Challenge are:

Phoenix Ai Ultralight Wheelchair, Phoenix Instinct (Inverness, UK): an ultra-lightweight, self-balancing, intelligent wheelchair which eliminates painful vibrations. Using smart sensors, the chair will configure itself to what the user is doing so it remains in sync with how the user moves. It will have many smart functions never before seen in wheelchairs, for example intelligent, lightweight power assist to help make slopes easier to ascend.

Phoenix Instinct - Phoenix Ai Ultralight Wheelchair

The Evowalk, Evolution Devices (United States): a non-intrusive sleeve which goes around the user’s leg and has sensors that track walking motion and stimulate the right muscles at the right time to improve mobility. This personalised, timed muscle stimulation will also rehabilitate muscles over time.

Evolution Devices Evowalk sleeve

Moby, Italdesign (Italy): the first mobility service created for wheelchair users, operating like a cycle share scheme in urban hubs. Offering a series of wheel-on electric devices, it will make travelling around cities much simpler and easier for people with lightweight manual wheelchairs. The service is accessible via an app-based share scheme.

Italdesign - Moby wheelchair service

Qolo (Quality of Life with Locomotion), Team Qolo, University of Tsukuba (Japan): this is a mobile exoskeleton on wheels which helps users to sit or stand with ease, effectively removing the ‘chair’ from ‘wheelchair’. Mobility is controlled using the upper body, allowing hands-free operation. The device enables users to travel around in a standing position, changing both physiological and social aspects of everyday living.

Team Qolo - University of Tsukuba

Quix, IHMC & MYOLYN (United States): a highly mobile, powered exoskeleton offering fast, stable and agile upright mobility, Quix uses modular actuation, perception technology from autonomous vehicles and control algorithms for balancing autonomous humanoid robots to deliver the mobility, safety and independence that current exoskeletons cannot provide.

IHMC and MYOLYN - Quix exoskeleton

“There are so many technological opportunities to explore approaches to alleviate challenges stemming from lower-limb paralysis,” said Dr Eric Krotkov, Chief Science Officer at the Toyota Research Institute and one of the Challenge judges.

“A competition like the Mobility Unlimited Challenge gets innovators to focus on the same problem to identify something of great common interest that serves society.

“I am excited by these finalists who have a breadth of technical approaches – wheelchairs, orthotics, braces and exoskeletons. I look forward to seeing how they will take these devices out of their conceptual stage to help our end users.”

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About Gareth Herincx

Gareth is a versatile journalist, copywriter and digital editor who's worked across the media in newspapers, magazines, TV, teletext, radio and online. After long stints at the BBC, GMTV and ITV, he now specialises in motoring.

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